How Julia Roberts Makes a Christian Sexual Ethic Impossible

This month’s guest post is once again written by Greg Richards.  Greg is a graduate of Duke Divinity School and is currently employed as a campus minister working with students at three major universities in San Antonio, TX.  Greg and I are both married to spouses who hold a special place in their hearts for the charming ways of Julia Roberts.  Is it the smile?  Is it the laugh?  Maybe the subtle toss of the hair?  We may never know.

Eat, Pray and Love Pretty Women by Running Away With Your Bride
by Greg Richards

As a recent post on this site demonstrated, we are lovers in a dangerous time. All around us there is sex, with a growing variety and shifting awareness, and like a wino with a twenty dollar bill we find ourselves overwhelmed and unsatisfied. The strongholds of cultural norms have been destroyed,and the easy (though often dishonest) answers of the church have come up wanting. As a way into a budding discussion of sex, and how Christians should be doing it, I want to lay out in this post the positions we may need to repent of, and in a future post begin to construct a more robust theology of sex.

In an effort to be both brief and clear, I would like to focus my frustrations and argument on Julia Roberts. Roberts works as a perfect scapegoat for me because she rose to prominence during my own sexually formative years, and she is also absurdly popular. Beyond being one of the few female actresses the women in my life (maybe Sandra Bullock and Reese Witherspoon are on that list as well) will uncritically applaud, she has somehow become an accepted figure of female virtue among women my age and older. This, though, is not a post about whether or not any of these things should be true (on a personal note I sort of like Julia Roberts and can mostly tolerate her films) but is meant to be an attempt to name why they are true.

Our culture holds two opposite notions of sex equally strongly. On the one hand, we believe that sex is a really normal, everyday sort of act. Sex is really nothing more than ramped up physical contact-sort of a handshake on steroids. There need be no real commitment or even relationship, simply two people in moderately good health who enjoy being with each other. In this picture, even the notion of something like intimacy is outdated. Certainly sex can have major consequences, but so can hugs, handshakes and bad sushi. The consequences do not make sex anything more than it is-a desire, a physical connection, and a chance to blow off steam. On the other hand, though, our culture is still enamored with story of romance and transcendence. We are drawn to magical moments where we can be part of something far bigger than ourselves, when we can be carried off. We long for moments when fantasy becomes real and sex can take us to another place. In this picture sex must take up all the weight and effort of our sentimentalism and make all of our romantic dreams come true.

This sexual paradox is particularly problematic for the Church, because by in large Christians have bought wholesale into one side or the other of this paradox (more on this in my future post). One of the reasons we have fallen prey to this picture is our propensity to be captured by popular films as opposed to doing the difficult work of theology. As human beings we are drawn to stories, and we are drawn to a number of stories for a number of reasons. Generally speaking, we will connect with a story when it resonates with something of who we are, or we who we aspire to be. So what is it that draws consistently back to the dangerous stream that is Julia Roberts’ movies? What, beyond her charismatic magnetism, makes the stories she tells so intriguing to us? I believe that Julia Roberts’ movies narrate our culture’s sexual paradox. Roberts’ characters and film embody one way to live in the midst of our cultural shift around sexual norms.

We might as well begin with Pretty Woman. This story is the classic sex as an everyday, completely mundane occurrence. In fact, in Pretty Woman, sex is as boring and mundane as a job. Woven throughout Pretty Woman is the notion that there might actually be more to sex. The hope that the everyday nature of sex might be transcended with the right amount of romance and the right person is the major theme of the movie. If we can create a formula for this paradigm it is: sentimentalism + soulmate= super sex. I am pretty sure I heard that same formula in youth group. Let’s jump ahead to Runaway Bride. This movie finds Julia Roberts in the sympathetic role of a woman who has run out of several weddings. Deep down, Roberts’ character wants transcendence and is willing to do anything short of saying vows to get it. In this film we discover the crucial piece that was missing from the modern sexual paradigm of Pretty Woman, which is the importance of knowing who you really are. Roberts’ inability to find transcendent, romantic love, is not due to any difficulty on the nature of ove or her fear of commitment, it is fundamentally because she does not know herself enough. The changing formula for super sex now looks like this: sentimentalism + soul mate (self knowledge + selflove)= super sex.

Pizza? Sex? Ah…same thing.

Finally, we turn to Roberts’ most recent love movie Eat, Pray, Love. I must confess that of all the Julia Roberts’ movies I have seen, this is arguably my least favorite. This film takes the self fulfillment/selflove theme of Runaway Bride and catapults it into the forefront. What Runaway Bride began to hint at through comedy and a pretty good soundtrack, Eat, Pray, Love makes explicit through pornographic pictures of pasta and highly romanticized stories of learning languages. The self discovery of Eat, Pray, Love is so blatant that it makes it hard to even like Julia Roberts in this movie. This discovery, fulfillment, love, is one inevitable outcome on the search for transcendence. In Julia Roberts’ films we see the movement within our own cultural paradox on sex. Our culture vacillates between sex as normal and mundane to sex as transcendent and amazing, and Julia Roberts’ teaches us that the missing ingredient in our story of sex is the individual self. Finally, it is not what you do that allows you to transcend (whether that be prostitute, hardware store owner, or travel writer) it is who you are that is the crucial important for the transcendent, romantic, super sex.

Finally, it is worth saying explicitly that if this is the story that captures our imaginations, than anything like a faithful, Christian, sexual ethic is impossible. We cannot begin at self fulfillment and ever get back to selfless service. We cannot start at Julia Roberts and work our way back to Jesus. If the alternative is Julia Roberts’ movies, than it is time for the Church to begin articulating, again and anew, a fully robust, fully orbed theology of sex.